Why forcing your remote employees to become non-remote is a dick move

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Yesterday, I read on AllThingsD that Marissa Mayer is confronting her remote employees with a choice: either work from an office, or quit. Being a remote employee myself, I couldn’t help but wonder what possible motivation she might have had for this decision. After thinking about it for a while, I can only conclude that this is a simple cost reduction move. By convincing remote employees to leave on their own account, Yahoo can avoid having to pay severance, which they are legally required to do if they simply lay them off.

I mean, think about it. Remote employees are remote for a reason. Do you really think we prefer working from home over working from an office? It might seem fun for a while, but it gets lonely really quickly. I miss the daily interaction you get with colleagues when working from an office. Idle conversation at the coffee machine may seem like a waste of time, but it reinforces the feeling that you’re part of a team, and more importantly: that there are people out there who care about your work. You need to be extremely self motivated in order to work from home.

Some people seem to have the preconception that remote employees prefer to work from home because it allows them to slack off without getting caught. This really ticks me off. People like that really have no idea what drives us as developers. I consider my job a huge privilege. I paid for doing what I love. How many people can say that? I am under contract for 32 hours a week, but nobody checks if I actually put in that many hours. That’s a huge amount of trust people put in you. Why on earth would I want to abuse that? If i have an unproductive day working from an office, at least I know I put in the hours that were expected of me. If I have an unproductive day working from home, I feel guilty writing those hours down, and I end up working in the weekends to catch up. If anything, I put in *more* hours when working remote, because it’s a lot harder to separate my work from my personal life.

So why do I work remote then? Because I have no choice. Mozilla has no office in the Netherlands. If they made the decision to force employees to work from an office tomorrow, I’d have to move to either Paris, London, or Berlin. Moving to another country is a huge transition. I have roots here: friends and family, not to mention a girlfriend that is highly reluctant to move abroad, that I’m not willing to give up just like that. I might eventually move abroad (I’ve really fallen in love with Toronto during my last visit), but then it will be because it’s *my* choice, not because my employer is forcing me into it.

Of course, it would have been different if Mozilla had told me that they’d only hire me if I’d agree to move to San Francisco. They’re not obliged to support remote employees, after all, and I could always just decide not to sign the contract and walk away at that point. That’s perfectly fine. But changing the rules halfway through the game? That’s just a dick move as far as I’m concerned. No job is worth making such life altering decisions for, unless it is *your* decision. And Yahoo! knows it. I would not be surprised if most Yahoo! employees decide to walk away instead of letting themselves be manipulated like this. That’s the point, after all.

By the way, if your argument is that remote employees are inherently less productive, because they have more barriers to deal with, I agree with you. Like I said earlier, its hard to stay motivated sometimes when you have no-one to talk to, and getting the information you need from someone over e-mail or irc is infinitely less efficient than just walking over to his/her desk and asking about it. However, keep in mind that the alternative is that would not able to work for Mozilla at all. I like to believe that my skills are still worthwhile, even when I’m not operating at 100% of my capacity. As long as I do my job well, my physical location shouldn’t matter.

In any case, if you want the benefits of allowing remote employees (having a global talent pool to fish from can be a real asset) but at the same time want to minimize the overhead associated with this, the right thing to do is not discouraging your employees from working remotely. Instead, you should do the opposite: encourage them to become local. Mozilla gets this. Yahoo! doesn’t, Either that, or their goal is not to minimize overhead, but simply to get rid of unwanted employees. I seriously doubt the former, since Marissa Mayer is a smart individual, but that really only leaves one explanation in my book.

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